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The Boys are Back: With a 50th anniversary run now on Broadway, a local actor recalls an earlier production of "The Boys in the Band" 

click to enlarge Robert Albertia, 84, a Richmond actor who co-starred in the 1971 Barksdale staging of “The Boys in the Band,” relaxes at home.

Scott Elmquist

Robert Albertia, 84, a Richmond actor who co-starred in the 1971 Barksdale staging of “The Boys in the Band,” relaxes at home.

New York — "The Boys in the Band," a lavender-ceiling-breaking play, is getting a splashy and first Broadway production 50 years after its premiere. The 15-week run was sold out even before its May 31 opening.

It certainly didn't hurt sales that the nine-man cast — all openly gay — includes Jim Parsons, of TV's "The Big Bang Theory," Zachary Quinto, Dr. Spock in a "Star Trek" remake, and Matt Bomer, who shook his booty in two "Magic Mike" movies.

On a recent particularly warm evening, the lobby of the opulent and century-old Booth Theatre on West 45th Street near Times Square is jammed and abuzz with theatergoers, mostly middle-aged men. Half a century ago — during the tumultuous year of 1968 that saw anti-war protests, assassinations, campus uprisings and racial unrest — a number of those settling into seats saw the trail-blazing show during its first, and last, major New York run. The venue back then was off-Broadway, at a church-turned-playhouse in a decidedly sketchy neighborhood.

In scripting "Boys," first time playwright Mart Crowley had tackled the question and challenge posed by a prominent theater critic: Why hadn't the mid-20th century's celebrated gay playwrights — Edward Albee, William Inge and Tennessee Williams — written about themselves and their ilk? Indeed, the love that dared not speak its name was conspicuously absent from the American stage throughout the 1950s and '60s.

But be careful what you ask for.

"The Boys in the Band," set in an attractive Manhattan apartment on a summer evening, depicts eight young and middle class men attending the birthday party of a ninth. And while there's plenty of cake and candles, campy repartee, and dancing and laughter, the play's script and its characters are laced with unflinching self-hatred, alcoholism, racism and homophobia.

So despite an initial off-Broadway run in the late '60s that attracted considerable intelligentsia, the play has mostly been denied admittance to the pantheon of gay-themed plays. As Jesse Green, a New York Times theater critic wrote recently, the general thinking holds "that transformative art should be a form of boosterism."

But consider how fast things changed soon after "The Boys" opened. In 1969, while this first major gay-themed play was enjoying its first run, the Stonewall riots blew open the proverbial closet. This was followed by gay liberation of the '70s and then the AIDS epidemic and the associated Act Up movement of the 1980s. During the 1990s, most gays and lesbians, and much of the American public came increasingly to see LGBT issues as civil rights. And during this time boosterist plays such as "The Normal Heart," "Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes," "Jeffrey," and "A Chorus Line," now playing at Richmond's Triangle Players, became theater staples.

Despite "The Boys in the Band" being adapted into a motion picture in 1970 (with the original, well-reviewed, and all-closeted cast intact) the world and how gay people saw themselves was evolving. The play lost traction.

Well, not exactly.

Interestingly, just two years after its New York run, the adventurous Barksdale Theatre, now a branch of Virginia Repertory Theatre, at sleepy Hanover County Courthouse, produced the first Richmond area production of "The Boys in the Band." The reception was positive.

So before attending the current "Boys" production in New York, I tracked down veteran Richmond actor Robert Albertia. He co-starred in that 1971 Barksdale production and apparently is the only member of that nine-man cast still living in the Richmond area. His role was Michael, now played by Jim Parsons.

"I'd seen and loved the movie," Portsmouth-reared Albertia, now 84, says in a clear baritone speaking by telephone from his home in Mechanicsville. However, when his physician heard he was planning to audition for the Barksdale production, he advised his patient to reconsider. Albertia, whose day job was in the programs department of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, already was in demand and didn't need the work. He had established a following locally from such leading and commanding roles as the King of Siam in "The King and I," and King Arthur in "Camelot."

"That was a closeted time," Albertia says. "Nobody was waving the flag. But Muriel McCauley and Nancy and David Kilgore (the Barksdale co-founders and artistic directors) were on the edge and did so many shows that were a surprise to Richmond audiences. Muriel was especially daring. They did some powerful shows.

"There was always an electric feeling to the place."

Albertia says auditions for "Boys in the Band" were held in a hair salon that occupied a former carriage house on North Laurel Street. The diminutive but distinctive structure is now wedged almost mischievously between two Virginia Commonwealth University high rise dormitories. It was the shop and home of the late stylist and actor Jay Lundy, who was directing "Boys" for Barksdale.

"A lot of actors were there seated in a circle and I was ready to read, when I was surprised to learn that I had already been cast as Michael, the host of the birthday party," Albertia says.

At the play's beginning, and on the surface, the character of Michael appears confident. But by the final curtain it's clear that self-doubt, alcohol and promiscuousness are serious issues.

"I was never afraid of a script," Albertia says, referring to both the verbal and emotional demands of the part. He says that Richmond actor Lee Neddick, who played birthday boy Harold, a self-described "pockmarked fairy and Jew," and a foil to Albertia's more all-American Michael, was "terrific, quite glib and acerbic."

Says Albertia of the original New York cast of "The Boys in the Band," "Not many of those actors were ever cast again. They had their day in the sun. They were history."

Five of the men in the original production, as well as its producer, died of AIDS.

Albertia, the last member of Richmond cast still living here, says the role didn't affect his acting trajectory in the least.

In 2015, the annual Richmond Artsy Awards, presented by local theater critics, recognized Albertia with the Liz Marks Award for ongoing contributions to Richmond area theater, an honor he shared with deVeaux Riddick and the late Robert Watkins.

"I've had an unexpected career and met wonderful people," Albertia says. S

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